Friday, January 30, 2015

Sexuality and the Bible, Part 2: The So-Called Clobber Verses

There's no way I can write comprehensively on the 6 biblical passages typically used to condemn same-sex relationships in 1000 words. (Matthew Vines wrote an entire book and only scratched the surface.) I'll give the basics of what is debated and leave plenty of links if you want to read more. I didn't pioneer any of these ideas, and my only qualifications are having a degree in Linguistics and knowing Ancient Greek.

The two sides--affirming and non-affirming [of same-sex relationships]--have been around for awhile. From Philo (1st century), Augustine (4th century), and Thomas Aquinas (14th century) on up, we've wrestled with disparity over how to interpret these passages. Our understanding of sexual orientation only developed recently, however. The rise of love marriages and the emphasis on friendship, feminism, the development of fields such as psychology, have all changed our understanding of attraction and marriage.

But queers always existed, and left their marks on history, from Oscar Wilde to Alexander the Great. We need to seek to understand God's perspective on those romances that don't fit the traditional narrative. Here's how the affirming side interprets things.

Sodom and Gomorrah

In Genesis 19, the men of Sodom want to gang-rape Lot's male visitors, a common way for men of that time to show dominance, especially over conquered people (see ancient Egyptian, Canaanite, Greek, and Asian cultures). Lot offers his daughters instead, but the visitors--angels--blind the men, get Lot's family out, and burn the town.

Biblical writers didn't see this as denunciation of homosexuality. Jeremiah 23:13-14 lists Sodom's sin as adultery, lying, and encouraging evil, and Ezekiel 16:49, says "Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy." Christian philosophers including OrigenJerome, and John Cassian also listed these as the sins of Sodom and never mention same-sex behavior.

A reading of the similar story in Judges 19 and the similar punishment in Judges 20-21 points to gang-rape as the real sexual problem. Jude 1:7 calls "sexual immorality" and pursuit of sarkos heteras (different flesh, probably that of angels) the sin of Sodom. Regardless, all of us, queer and straight, agree that rape is horrible. The story of Sodom has no bearing on loving, committed same-sex marriages.

Levitical Laws

Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 call "men lying with men" an "abomination," or toevah. Extreme demonstrators at pride parades like to throw this on signs: "God calls homosexuality an abomination!" But the Levitical laws also call eating lobster and women wearing men's clothes toevahGenesis 46:34 says that "every shepherd is toevah unto the Egyptians."

Christians still eat seafood and women accept a man's jacket when it's cold out. We no longer follow the Levitical laws because they were satisfied in Christ. This applies to sexual laws too: when a man rapes a virgin, we don't force them to marry.

The holiness codes were meant to set the Israelites apart from their neighbors. Many actually make a lot of sense. Denouncing tattoos counteracted nearby cultures who marked their skin in ancestor worship. Not eating blood referred to cultures who consumed blood to obtain the powers of that creature. And male same-sex intercourse was connected to the common practice of conquerors raping the conquered.

But we have been set apart by the blood of Christ. Acts 15:29 details the four laws the Apostles saw fit to pass on to gentile believers (no blood, idol food, strangled meat, or extramarital sex) and even those are often forgotten. We are under grace, not under the Law of Leviticus.

Romans 1

Romans 1 gives the biggest argument against same-sex relationships. The context of this passage is talking about how the gentiles in Rome (Paul's audience) turned from God, and homosexual lust is an example of a consequence.

The passage clearly condemns passion, talking about being given over "in the lusts of their hearts." Committed same-sex relationships, however, are loving, not lustful.

Also, Paul had no concept of sexual orientation. Most of the same-sex behavior in his day was married men taking lovers, pederasty, and prostitution. Adultery and sexual exploitation are always sinful, regardless of the sexes of those involved. Same-sex sex wasn't something the Greeks thought you could prefer. They believed that every man liked sex and liked it with women, and so if you had it with a man, that was "extra." To the moralists, including Paul, it was seen as excessive when you couldn't control your sexual urges and contain them to your marriage bed. In that context, I see his point. There were no same-sex marriages, and that kind of monogamous homosexual commitment wasn't thought possible.

Despite these arguments, the words "natural" and "unnatural" appear to condemn gayness as going against nature. Even though the context of this passage is lust, that unnaturalness would probably apply to non-lustful, committed relationships too.

Reading the passage in Greek is a different matter. The words are phusiken, "natural," and phusin, "nature" (compare with phutossumphutos, and emphutos). While these words are all from the root phus from which we get "phys-", the words used here refer to what is customary, or natural within a certain context. Paul uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 11 when he says, "Does not the very nature [phusis] of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him...?"

We don't think that it's "unnatural" for men to have long hair in quite the same way that many Christians believe it's "unnatural" to have a same-sex relationship. But Paul uses the same word. It's used at other points when talking about circumcision (Romans 2:27), the Jews as the natural branches of the vine of Jesus (Romans 11:21), and being "by nature children of wrath" because we were sinful (Ephesians 2:3). These aren't things we consider to be Must-Be's. In fact, we consider most of them changeable, and Paul did too. We were naturally children of wrath, but now we are (unnaturally) children of God. That's a kind of unnatural I'm okay with.

The Romans passage refers to lustful and excessive sexual behaviors. But those reasons don't extend to loving, committed, monogamous relationships of queers today.

(I use this and this Greek dictionary. Here's an opposing argument.)

Malakoi and Arsenokoitai

In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul lists certain sinners, in which translations of the last 50 years include "homosexuals." The former list is of those who "will not inherit the kingdom," and that has led many to say that "gays won't go to heaven." However, the context is Paul talking about what the Corinthian Christians were before they came to Christ, so the inference that these people cannot "get into" heaven is false.

The two words that are translated "effeminate" and "homosexuals" are malakoi and aresenokoitai. Malakoi literally means soft, but most interpreters agree it refers to femininity.

Effeminate is one translation. However, philosophers of the day equated manhood with strength, valor, and self-control, while womanhood meant weakness, cowardice, submission, and lack of restraint. Philo calls unmanliness and effeminacy "the greatest of all evils" and Aristotle called women "deformed males."

Clement of Alexandria and other early Christian writers considered it wrong when a man played the part of a woman in sex (no matter the sex of his partner) because it would lead him to the "effeminate" sins. In fact, Seneca condemned men who pursued sex with women, or liked sex "too much" as unmanly. Now that's a switch from today.

When Paul condemns malakoi, the likelihood is that he was referring to a lack of self-control or related "effeminate" sins.

Arsenokoitai, meanwhile, is a compound made from "man" and "bed." Damning as that sounds, compound words aren't always simple. "Understanding" has nothing to do with standing under. Related compounds are sometimes what you'd expect (polukoitos, "many" plus "bed," refers to promiscuity) and sometimes not (enotokoites, "ear" plus "bed," means "with ears large enough to sleep in," not an ear fetish). Plus there's already a compound for having sex with a man: androkoites.

Arsenokoitai appears elsewhere only in lists of wrongdoings like Paul's. It's often placed directly between the group of economic wrongs and the sexual wrongs. In the Sibylline OraclesActs of John, and a letter To Autolychus, it occurs among purely economic wrongs, making it likely that this has to do with sexual exploitation, not consenting sexual behavior: pedastery, prostitution, temple prostitution, or sex trafficking. These are a far cry from gay relationships today.

Dale Martin suggests that it's impossible to tell with any certainty what exactly arsenokoitai means. We know that it's a wrongdoing and that it deals with exploitation, probably in a sexual way. Anything else is conjecture.

Some have said that the appearance of malakoi and arsenokoitai together in 1 Corinthians is meant to address the masculine and feminine partners in a gay partnership, but there's simply no evidence to support this. Malakoi doesn't occur in 1 Timothy, nor other ancient references to arsenokoitai.

It was only in the mid-twentieth century that Bible translators even began to interpret these words as references to homosexuality, since gay rights were on the rise. A history of how they have been interpreted through history shows the disparity between most of history and our translations today. (Note: "'Sodomites' and 'buggerers' were labels applied on the basis of acts, not desires. Once a person ceased engaging in 'sodomy' or 'buggery' (terms that could encompass all non-procreative sexual acts), he was no longer considered a sodomite or buggerer." ~Matthew Vines)

It's a long stretch to say malakoi and arsenokoitai referred to loving same-sex relationships. It's far more likely referencing "effeminate" vices and sexual exploitation.

(More on arsenokoitai from the controversial John Boswell. A dissenting argument.)


After going through all these passages again in greater depth, I came to agree with the affirming scholars that the Bible doesn't condemn committed, loving gay marriages. It does condemn same-sex behavior when it is lustful, excessive, adulterous, or exploiting of another human being. I consider that kind of sexual behavior wrong when it's heterosexual as well, as I think most Christians do.

There's a lot more I wish I had room for, but I'll leave you with a reading list. You're welcome to leave questions in the comments, but I recommend reading these first.

  1. My friend Reverend Alex Lang's position paper to his church
  2. Brandon Wallace's (of posts about the "clobber verses"
  3. The Virginia-Highland Church's great set of posts on why they have an affirming doctrine
  4. St. John's Metropolitan Community Church gives a far more linguistically and historically in-depth (but still short) study of the Bible than I can
  1. Matthew Vine's book God and the Gay Christian explains the affirming view and argues for the interpretation I've put forth in this post
  2. James Brownson's book Bible, Gender, Sexuality is neither affirming nor non, but looks carefully at both sides of the debate while urging Christians to do the same
  3. Robert Gagnon's book The Bible and Homosexual Practice explains the non-affirming view and argues why we need to uphold the view of same-sex relationships as sinful

I'll be back next week with a post about why I believe Scripture upholds gay marriage, not simply denies it, and the problems with the church's recent approach to celibacy.

Word count: 1,905.